Early on in Saturday’s final round of the Southern Cross Tournament, it seemed very similar to last year’s event at Palmetto Golf Club. Fresh off a good showing in the Junior Invitational, a Pendleton High School player was going lower than everybody else in the field and propelling his team toward the top of the leaderboard in the process.


While Carson Young, this year’s Junior Invitational champion, maintained his high level of play to capture medalist honors, the Bulldogs’ bid to win back-to-back Southern Cross titles fell short. That’s because of a tremendous showing by the South Aiken players. The Thoroughbreds overcame a three-stroke deficit at the start of the round and ultimately won the team championship by 12 strokes over Pendleton.


“I’m just really lucky to have such a good group of guys play fantastic golf,” South Aiken head coach Drew Jernigan said of his team that includes Alex Handy (69-75–144), Hayden Ploeger (76-71–147), Ryan Carpenter (78-71–149) and Jake Carter (83-74–157). “Over two days, we proved we’re a pretty good team and earned every bit of the sweet taste of victory.”


The win was even sweeter because the T-Breds rallied past Pendleton, the team that beat them by a single stroke for the title last year.


“Last year was a bitter pill to swallow,” Jernigan said of 2012’s final round that saw Young card a 68 and teammate Austin Langdale shoot 64 en route to medalist honors. This time, in spite of Young’s dominant showing (68-69–137) that saw him finish seven strokes ahead of his closest competitor and a solid seventh-place tie from Langdale (73-73–146), the performance of the future Clemson teammates wasn’t nearly enough to counter South Aiken’s balanced and determined team. “I guess (this is sweeter), but that’s a compliment to (Pendleton). We beat a team with quality golfers who are going to play at the highest level in college and possibly professionally one day. It really says a lot about what we’re doing.”


“That definitely motivated us,” said Ploeger, who’s 71 Saturday tied Carpenter for second-lowest round of the day. “We were down three and didn’t want to lose to them again.”


South Aiken was so strong in the second round that it didn’t even use Handy’s score from Saturday – and he finished the tournament in a four-way tie for second place with Riverside’s Jonathon Hardee (71-73–144), Greenville’s Keenan Huskey (70-74–144 and Clinton’s Hunter Nichols (72-72–144), each of whom was named to the all-tournament team along with Fort Dorchester’s R.J. Keur (72-73–145). Most players in the field would’ve been thrilled to finish with the 75 that Handy posted. Had either of Pendleton’s other players carded such a number, the final outcome would’ve been different. But South Aiken didn’t need to use it because it got a tremendous bounce-back 74 from Carter to go along with the 71s from Carpenter and Ploeger.


“We knew what we could do. We knew we could win,” said Ploeger, adding the significance of winning the Southern Cross isn’t lost on him or his teammates. “It’s such a big deal because we came so close the last two years. It’s a big deal because of Palmetto, there’s nothing like it. It’s awesome.”


The next challenge for the T-Breds is the Lower State Qualifier in Sumter on Monday. The following week will be the state tournament. Ploeger said that Handy devised a strategy for the team right before the Region 5-AAAA championship.


“He said, ‘lets go undefeated the rest of the season,’” Ploeger revealed of the plan that has worked so far. “That’s what we’re striving for.”


Winning a state title is also on Young’s mind. While the hottest player in the Palmetto State is looking to continue his individual streak, he said his primary focus is winning a team title for the Bulldogs. It might help if the state tournament was moved somewhere in Aiken County where Young has notched back-to-back impressive wins against incredibly deep fields as 103 other players competed in the Southern Cross this weekend.


“That’s a good plan,” Young said of staying in Aiken, admitting his success isn’t something he can really put his finger on. “I don’t know what to think. Everything is coming together. It’s nice to get it rolling.”


While the state tournament won’t be in Aiken, Young has already committed to returning to Palmetto for its signature event, June’s Palmetto Amateur.


“I’m excited for that,” said Young, who was happy to join a list of distinguished players to have won the Southern Cross – including Jonathan Byrd, Tommy Biershenk, Stephen Poole, Alex Hamilton and Kevin Kisner among others. “It’s cool to win this finally because I’ve played it three years now. A lot of big names have won. Also to have back-to-back Pendleton winners is cool. It’s good to be up there.”


Young actually entered the final round of the 36-hole championship in second place behind Blythewood’s Bryce Howell. But he couldn’t find the touch that led to Friday’s 67 and struggled to an 80, leaving him tied for 10th place.


He said trouble putting was the main culprit in a round that had six bogies and two double bogies to just a single birdie.


“It’s not what I wanted,” said Howell, who was in good spirits in spite of the struggle. “I hung in there and grinded it out and didn’t let it get to me. This tournament is awesome, it’s my favorite of the year.”


The weather made conditions far from ideal for the second day in a row, as players had to deal with consistent rain, swirling winds and biting chills.


“It turns this place completely different,” said Nichols, who’s second consecutive 72 included an eagle.


“It was definitely a factor,” said Huskey. “It was playing longer. Although the greens were slower, it made them harder to read.”


Even Young said the conditions were tougher in the second round, although it’s hard to tell on his scorecard. In spite of the challenges posed by Palmetto, Young’s eager to return.


“This course is one of my favorites. It’s always good to play it.”


Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.


LEADERBOARD


INDIVIDUALS


• Carson Young, Pendleton 68-69–137


• Alex Handy, South Aiken 69-75–144


• Jonathon Hardee, Riverside 71-73–144


• Keenan Huskey, Greenville 70-74–144


• Hunter Nichols, Clinton 72-72–144


• R.J. Keur, Fort Dorchester 72-73–145


TEAMS


• South Aiken 223-216–439


• Pendleton 220-231–451


• Easley 232-225–457


• Wren 224-234–458


• Christ School 225-236–461


ALSO


• North Augusta 233-251–484


• Aiken 249-245–494